I don’t know exactly why I’ve had it on the brain recently, except that I saw John Ford mentioned in a documentary last week, but I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite John Ford / John Wayne collaborations, 1957’s “The Wings of Eagles.”
This is a unique, and yet in some ways very typical, John Ford movie. It was an obvious labor of love for Ford, who was telling the true story of his good friend and collaborator, Frank “Spig” Wead, a former Navy pilot who had turned to screenwriting. “Spig” Wead starts out as a typical John Wayne hero, but then tragedy strikes and he spends the middle portion of the movie confined to a hospital bed and the rest of it hobbling about on canes.
The treat for John Ford fans is that Ford himself is a character in the story, under the pseudonym “John Dodge” and played by Ford stock company member Ward Bond! Everyone enjoys the chance to poke good-natured fun at the boss, and Bond milks the part for all it’s worth.
Some critics say the movie veers too sharply between slapstick (Wead’s early hijinks as a pilot, and the scenes where Dan Dailey’s character tries to sneak him alcohol in the hospital) and pathos. But I think it all works. And Ford swore that the hijinks were based on real events, including an Army-Navy fistfight and the opening scene, in which Wead lands an airplane in the middle of an Admiral’s garden tea party.
Maureen O’Hara is always good with John Wayne, although their relationship here is bittersweet. She’s especially good here playing a sympathetic woman with real flaws at a time when Hollywood heroines were supposed to either be totally good or totally evil.
This doesn’t seem to be on DVD yet, but there’s a tape available, and TCM runs the movie from time to time.